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June 8, 2021updated 21 Jun 2021 4:17pm

Opinion: For women in tech, WFH should be an option – not an escape route from discrimination

The shift to remote working does not let employers off resolving the issues that drive women to avoid the workplace, writes Cristina Lago.

By Cristina Lago

The experience of women in tech working from home during the pandemic has been mixed. While some women report that the flexibility of carrying out their role remotely has been good for their careers, a study by accelerateHER, a global network addressing female underrepresentation in tech, found women in the UK tech sector have seen gender inequality increase with the shift to remote working. Fifty-seven percent of the 177 tech female workers surveyed thought that the pandemic has led to a regression of gender roles – more than a third (34%) said they have been set back by “ten to 20 years”.

As has been widely reported, Covid-19 has disproportionally impacted women and many of them have had to add household, caring and home-schooling chores to their daily jobs. Many others considered leaving work or downshifting their careers as a result of this pressure. Among women working in IT, 51% felt that securing a promotion has been more difficult and 50% said that Covid-19 made it more challenging to achieve top-level positions. This problem could be exacerbated as more companies switch to a permanent remote work model.

Working from home might have helped some women. But it came at a price.


Working from home to bypass office pressures

Before lockdown, the top concerns for women in the workplace were the gender pay gap (22%), under-representation at management level and above (16%), pressure to hide female health “issues” such as PMS (15%), and sexism (15%), according to a survey of 2,267 UK-based women by menstrual healthcare platform Yoppie.

But even more telling are the issues that working from home has helped to address: 28% of women found that remote work alleviated the pressure of maintaining a certain level of appearance, and a quarter found that it eased the burden of hiding female health "issues”, such as PMS. Less than a tenth said that it helped to prevent sexism (6%), bridge the gender pay gap (5%), or bring more representation across management (3%) and the wider company (1%).

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Debbie Forster, CEO of the Tech Talent Charter, an industry collective working for greater gender, ethnicity and disability representation in IT, tells me that we should be cautious about seeing home working as a quick fix that companies can offer women to resolve these issues.

“Firstly, there are many reasons that both men and women may prefer a part or total work from home experience, but if all the women in your company are jumping to work from home, while the men seem happy to come back to the office, it might be a good idea to take a closer look at what cultures or practices your organisation is perpetuating that may be making women feel uncomfortable or unsafe in a shared environment,” Forster says.

That more than a quarter of women think that working from home takes off the pressure to keep a certain level of appearance should not be considered a win. Instead, employers (and society as a whole) should be reassessing what kind of workplace culture they promote that pushes women to “look good” – a requisite not necessarily expected from men.

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Similarly, if 25% of women feel that working from home helps them hide what are natural effects of the menstrual cycle, this calls for a review of perceptions and practices. PMS can be severe, with some women experiencing premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) that can incapacitate them from performing their work and usual tasks. Nevertheless, 23% of women surveyed in another Yoppie study said they had to lie to take time off due to PMS symptoms, including pains and cramps.

Among the reasons cited by those women is the fear that period pains or PMS symptoms will not be considered a legitimate illness and therefore not a good enough reason to miss work (26%), feelings of inadequacy compared to female colleagues who appear to not have days off due to menstruation (12%), or fear of judgement from male colleagues (12%) – something that needs to be borne in mind in a sector where 81% of the workforce is male. Although only 7% claimed that the reason for lying about taking time off is due to poor facilities in the workplace, the figure is still too high for a country that is among the richest in the world.

WFH for women in tech - a choice, not an imposition

The pandemic has shown that remote working is not only possible but also beneficial for many workers and employers alike, and the tech sector has been at the forefront of changing working models. However, working from home should be an individual choice and not an escape route to bypass structural injustices or sexism in organisations. Nor cannot it be an excuse to stop the progress of creating accessible workplaces.

The move to digital and the normalisation of online meetings has helped to narrow the disability employment gap; as we have reported at Tech Monitor, virtual tech apprenticeships have opened the door to disabled people who were previously denied that option. However, a TUC report has found that pre-existing workplace barriers for disabled people have been accentuated by the pandemic. Forty-two percent of disabled women did not tell their employer about their disability, health condition or impairment because they worried their organisation would think they cannot do their job, and 32% because of unfair treatment concerns. Forcing staff to keep working remotely when it is not their choice, and ceasing efforts to make workspaces accessible and inclusive, would be dangerous and discriminatory.

In the US, a survey by a non-profit group advocating for diversity in Silicon Valley found that tech workers have been experiencing more harassment because of their gender, age and ethnicity while working remotely – harassment which is higher among women, transgender and non-binary people, and Asian, Black, Latinx and Indigenous people.

According to employer review platform Glassdoor, 50% of the best companies for LGBT+ people to work for are tech organisations. And still, queer and non-binary journalist and “leakivist” Emma Best told ABC News that anonymity makes things easier for trans people and gender-nonconforming individuals to “get their foot in the door” in the tech space, particularly with the rise of remote working.

Tech Talent Charter’s Forster said that if tech companies want to attract and retain a more diverse workplace, including achieving more gender balance, they must take a top to bottom look at how their business model, culture and hiring practices might directly or indirectly disadvantage under-represented groups.

This includes assessing the impact that working from home can have on women and how, instead of helping them balancing work-life commitments, it can isolate them and hinder their careers in an industry which already is lacking such representation: “Flexible working, including the option to work from home is an important policy in attracting more diverse talent, but it is not a quick fix for a culture that is biased towards maintaining the status quo," says Forster.

Home page image by Pressmaster/Shutterstock

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